(Methane hydrate deposits around the world. Image Source: US Geological Survey)
What’s more dangerous than a Fukushima reactor meltdown? The Japanese quest to exploit methane hydrates.
Ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant dangerously and spectacularly melted down in 2011, Japan has been on a quest to find reliable energy sources that safely replace nuclear power. One of these prospective sources is methane hydrates. Yet, in attempting to transition from nuclear energy to methane hydrate, Japan is simply trading one dangerous and unpredictable energy resource for another.
Methane hydrates are a form of methane mixed with frozen water that rest in vast deposits on the sea bed. It is thought that these deposits are double the current estimate for all other forms of fossil fuels. And since scientists estimate two thirds of currently available fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to keep global warming below dangerous levels (levels that Hurricane Sandy victims would argue are dangerous now), the addition of methane hydrates to that mix would almost certainly worsen an already dark global warming picture.
Yet, just this week, Japan announced that it had successfully extracted methane hydrates from the sea floor for the first time and that it intends to begin commercial extraction of this carbon intensive energy source within 5 years.
A High Cost, Unstable Fuel For Desperate Times
The costs of methane hydrate extraction are still very high. So high, in fact, that serious doubts remain that the supply can be extracted commercially.
Yet Japanese government seems hell bent to exploit the resource, ignoring both costs and risks. Japan’s options were limited after Fukyshima and it appears desperate to access any new resource, no matter how costly or volatile.
According to reports from the Financial Times, Ryo Minami, director of the oil and gas division of Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources, compared the effort to exploit methane hydrate to America’s fracking of shale gas. “Ten years ago, everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly. Yet now it’s commercialised,” he said.
It is true that the US exploited shale gas at serious cost and risk to water supplies and increased methane leaks. It is also true that a number of countries which consider shale gas too dangerous a resource have banned it. France, for example, which relies heavily on nuclear power won’t touch shale gas. The reason includes a serious risk of climate change that makes the disaster resulting from Fukushima seem minor by comparison.
Climate Change Game Over
(Sea-bed hydrate turning into gas. Image source: Motherboard)
One wonders why Japan isn’t instead pushing for greater adoption of renewable energy supplies instead of seeking to exploit ever more dangerous and expensive reserves of fossil fuel. Tapping yet another unconventional fossil fuel resource that would make dealing with human caused global warming all the more difficult.
So far, 880 gigatons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. Together, methane hydrates and all the remaining fossil fuels represent a potential to dump 15,000 gigatons more carbon into an already stressed environment. Such an exploitation would likely take more than a century to complete. However, once finished, the extraction and burning of all that fossil fuel would result in world CO2 levels soaring to over 2000 ppm. Such levels would almost certainly set off runaway global warming.
Even worse, methane hydrates are very volatile, subject to explosive destabilization. So mining the resource from the sea-bed would likely result in a substantial portion being released as methane as part of the extraction process. Such methane releases could strip oxygen from the local marine environment. In large releases, methane would bubble up into the atmosphere adding yet another greenhouse gas to the global warming problem.
Exploitation of Methane Hydrates Unsustainable
Considering greenhouse gas emissions need to begin declining now to preserve a livable climate for human civilizations, Japan’s plans to exploit methane hydrates are unwise even in the best of cases. Japan’s significant economy would be better off investing in alternatives such as wind and solar energy as well as building on current battery-based vehicle fleets to push PHEVs and EVs for the Japanese market.
Methane hydrates represent an expensive climate dead end for Japan and the global economy. Hopefully, Japan will reconsider before the world is shackled to yet another costly and dangerous unconventional fossil fuel resource.